Leaders from North Macedonia and EU member Bulgaria appear to have mapped out a possible exit from a yearlong dispute over shared culture that has stalled Macedonian hopes for progress toward accession talks with the bloc.
But without a decisive breakthrough to lift Sofia's objections to opening such negotiations, EU officials acknowledged that the failure to decide to open membership talks with Skopje was likely damaging the bloc's "credibility."
A tentative route out of the 10-month deadlock emerged on October 6 after a meeting between Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of an EU-Western Balkans summit at Brdo Castle in Slovenia.
"During the talks, mutual readiness and interest were expressed by North Macedonia and Bulgaria to continue the dialogue between the two countries with the intention of reaching a solution," Zaev said in a statement.
Sofia raised its objection to EU accession talks with North Macedonia in November 2020, accusing Macedonians of marginalizing historical, cultural, and linguistic ties and appropriating Bulgarian heritage.
Radev, who faces a reelection battle in November alongside his disunited country's third parliamentary elections this year, announced at Brdo Castle that a bilateral protocol was being drafted between Sofia and Skopje and would be presented next month.
He said a road map with specific decisions could follow that Sofia will insist on including in the framework for North Macedonia's EU membership negotiations.
Radev listed three demands from the Bulgarian side before Sofia would withdraw its objection to EU talks for Skopje: a previous insistence on the inclusion of Bulgarians as a nationality in the Macedonian Constitution; the enumeration of Macedonian Bulgarians "adequately reflected as a nationality and as a number" in the upcoming Macedonian census; and recognition by North Macedonia of "the historical truth in relations with Bulgaria."
The European Commission has repeatedly said the futures of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia lie in the 27-member bloc.
But divisions among EU states about taking in new members and the slow pace of reform in the six hopefuls has put enlargement on ice for years.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged at Brdo on October 6 that the blocked accession talks of North Macedonia and nearby Albania were damaging the EU's credibility in the Western Balkans.